Aron Ralston’s courage inspires students

Aron Ralston does not look any different when he is sitting down at a table. But when this Carnegie Mellon alumnus stands up to shake hands, he uses his left — his right arm ends just below the elbow.

Ralston graduated from Carnegie Mellon in 1997 with a degree in mechanical engineering and French and a minor in music.

During his time at Carnegie Mellon, he was an RA in Hamerschlag House for two years, during which he became one of the founders the Hamerschlag Haunted Halloween House.

Despite graduating a decade ago, Ralston still has the characteristics of a Carnegie Mellon student. For example, he said that his first reaction to “Walking to the Sky” was awe.

However, he noted that he saw how the structure could quickly become an object of ridicule, proceeding to guess what sort of snow-based spherical objects appear at the base of “Walking to the Sky” during the snow-covered winter months.

After graduation, Ralston went to work for the Intel Corporation. While living on the West Coast, Ralston fell in love with the outdoors. He began to hike extensively and climb mountains: specifically, several of Colorado’s “fourteeners”, mountains over 14,000 feet tall. After five years working for Intel, Ralston decided to “retire as a MechE” and move to Aspen, Colorado.

There, he worked in a mountaineering supply store and lived in an apartment that was, in his words, “worse than dorm housing.”

It was then that Ralston developed the dream that would bring both highs and lows — climbing all of Colorado’s “fourteeners” in the winter, alone.

In 2003, while hiking in Utah, an accident happened that changed Ralston’s life forever. As he was traversing a boulder, it rolled, trapping his arm underneath. Ralston was trapped for five days.

Using the skills he acquired as a mechanical engineer, Ralston attempted various methods of escape. None were successful. Finally, dehydrated, starving, and near death, Ralston had a realization; by breaking the bones in his arm, above the wrist, he would be able to cut through the flesh and free himself.

“What CMU gave me prepared me for [life],” Ralston said.

He now works as a guide outdoors, specializing in leading at-risk youth and disabled veterans. Ralston motivates his clients by explaining to them how much he has accomplished despite his physical handicap, and showing them how to do the same to reach their own goals.

Ralston visits companies as a motivational speaker, doing what he calls “storytelling.”

“My experience... affects the greater world,” he said, explaining his reason for speaking to the public.

The one benefit to his accident, he said, was that it “accelerate[d] my life plans a bit.”

Before the accident, Ralston said, he was in his 20s and fairly self-centered, concentrating on his goal of climbing the fourteeners and lacking a satisfying personal life. Afterward, things changed. Ralston felt the need to reach out to others who experience difficulties like his in their daily lives.

After the accident, Ralston completed his goal of summiting all of the fourteeners with the help of a specially designed prosthetic. When he’s not working outdoors, Ralston makes use of his mechanical engineering degree by helping to develop these ice-axe prosthetics as well as other designs for slightly less-extreme activities, an occupation which makes him very proud.

Ralston is not one to sit still for long. He recently went mountain climbing in Argentina. He has also been steadily accomplishing his ongoing goal of visiting more countries than his age— at 32, he has visited 40. In addition, he is active in several wilderness-conservation groups, including one to protect Blue John Canyon, where he had his accident.

“Without wilderness, my accident wouldn’t have happened,” Ralston said.